Developing the Fission-Fusion Concept: A Journey through the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences (Part 2)

Dr Miranda Anderson is an Honorary Fellow in History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh and an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. She has held several prestigious fellowships and was principal investigator of an AHRC-funded project, titled ‘The Art of Distributed Cognition’, which involved collaboration with the Talbot Rice Gallery. Her work has investigated the relations between cognition and culture, particularly literary works, challenging the boundaries between disciplines and engaging with numerous contemporary science, technology and society (STS) questions. In this perspective article, she evokes the ‘fission-fusion’ concept on which she has been working for some years now – a concept that contributes to debates surrounding the issue of identity by drawing on the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

The particular ‘I’ that I am, came to the idea of fission-fusion from cognitive scientific research rather than from quantum physics. I base my approach on cognitive scientific and philosophical theories that claim that rather than being merely information processors or brain-bound, minds are distributed across the brain, body and world. The term distributed cognition is sometimes used interchangeably with 4E cognition, with the 4Es standing for embodied, enactive, embedded, and extended cognition. Embodied cognition argues that cognition is shaped by the body; enactive cognition views it as unfolding through engagements between organisms and environments; embedded cognition includes external resources as enabling factors, while extended cognition argues that the external resources are themselves part of the cognitive system. Drawing on scientific evidence from across areas such as cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, psychology and linguistics, I have shown how this framework counters the elision of the body and the physical world by postmodern social constructivism. For the last two decades I have been exploring how these theories illuminate the nature and value of the arts and humanities, working with colleagues to uncover evidence of notions and practises of distributed cognition between classical antiquity and the twentieth century, as well as focusing myself on how it operates in culture and the history of ideas.[1] I aim now also to collaborate with other thinkers to consider its wider remits for contemporary culture and society, as well as for other non-western cultures throughout history.

Paradigms about distributed or 4E cognition are abiding because they capture abiding aspects of human nature. 4E accounts of mind lead to more awareness of the fundamental cognitive roles of embodiment and environment. Yet the emergence of their current conceptualisations from discourses of evolutionary adaptivity and the computing revolution in the mid-twentieth century led to a different form of elision: a tendency to view cognition’s distribution as necessarily beneficial, rather than realising negative aspects and ethical issues, or the significance of the capacity for separability and distinctness.

Questioning of the cognitive sciences’ focus on distribution as enhancing cognition arose across the periods examined in The Edinburgh History of Distributed Cognition series (2018-20). Historically new technologies and forms of sociocultural norms generated most critiques and resistance. For instance, during industrialisation anxiety arose around ways in which human cognitive capacities were impinged upon, degraded, or replaced by forms of mechanisation, systematisation and routinisation; then as we moved into the twentieth century, these expanded into concerns about the flourishing of nationalism, propaganda and the manipulation of the masses.

A picture of Agnieska Kurant's work, AAI
Agnieszka Kurant, ‘A.A.I.’ [photographic representation], 2019, (mounds built by colonies of termites out of coloured sand). Installation view, ‘The Extended Mind’, 2019. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh.
In our own society, the arts make visible why there should be anxieties about corporately motivated and under-regulated forms of technological domination. The internet, computers and mobiles enable the digitally connected to communicate instantly and remotely, fact-check, work, shop, socialise and protest or rebel against existing forms of power. Yet several artworks in The Extended Mind exhibition, which I curated with Talbot Rice Gallery, such as those by Agnieszka Kurant, cast light on the socio-economic and ethical dimensions of contemporary forms of distributing cognition across networks of minds. Kurant created A.A.I. by using unwitting termite colonies supplied with coloured sand and glitter, out of which they created mounds which she then sold as artworks to illustrate the silent exploitation of our collective intelligence, such that ’we no longer know when our labor or social capital is being stealthily harvested’.[2] Sociocultural, political, and economic systems and practices, and our conceptualisations of them, undergo myopic manipulations by multinational corporations wielding huge amounts of opaque power. While rendering us servile rather than superhuman, this is oft accompanied by an idealism around technology and virtualisation that speaks of our old hubris of human superiority – seeing ourselves as lords of the world rather than as entangled in it.  The ways in which our current context constrains our theories of minds and selves are evident, and consequently the need for it to be informed by historically oriented studies and alternative cultural perspectives.

The development of the 4E cognition framework over the last thirty years heightened concern over what exactly could be used as a defining ‘mark of the mental’: a way of distinguishing the mental from the non-mental.[3] Using the ‘fission-fusion’ concept helps illuminate the fact that there is, in fact, no such defining ‘mark’. I adopted fission-fusion to communicate my belief that rather than there being any single defining feature, the mind and the self are polythetic. Polythetic classifications are defined by Wittgenstein as follows: ‘the strength of a thread does not reside in the fact that some one thread runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’[4] Rather than any single mark of the mental that is required to run throughout, the fission-fusion approach argues that a variable cluster of combined strands can constitute the mind or a certain feature of the mind; and this can also be said about a self, or an artwork or technology or environment. The exact combination of constitutive strands can vary, with variation in their make-up, potentially, though not always, having an effect depending on their intended function and the wider context. This view is also complementary to predictive processing, widely posited for around the last decade as the means whereby the mind engages with the world.[5]

Fission-fusion complements Daniel Casasanto and Gary Lupyan’s theory of language, which argues that while we have conventional word definitions, these are merely cues that guide our ad hoc use of them.[6] In order to parse the nature of our engagements with the world, we require both Newtonian and more relativistic physics concepts, as Casasanto points out, giving the comparison of someone on a diet using scales and so adhering to Newtonian notions of mass, versus someone pondering the nature of the universe.[7] Thus, we need an array of concepts to grasp and navigate the multidimensional nature of reality. Indeed, fission-fusion can again be applied as a kind of meta-concept to consider the sharing and distinctions between these different concepts of mass. Diverse ways of being and knowing are embedded in and revealed by kaleidoscopes of cultural and historical ideas and practises.

A fission-fusion approach chimes with decolonisation debates, which have highlighted the need to ‘re-attune to decolonial ways of seeing-thinking-doing-listening’ through ‘the practice of other ways of thinking, knowing and learning’ in order to counteract the elision of material nature and the body.[8] If we consider questions of self in relation to the concept of fission-fusion, then it helps to explain why positioning one aspect of someone as a defining feature and as having universal characteristics that are not variably expressed in relation to other aspects of their self is an artificial conceptual constraint. Such ideas are already implicit in the ways people try to negotiate questions of identity. Artist and film director Steve McQueen resists the narrowing of his work’s potential in his description that Twelve Years a Slave is ‘not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything.’[9] This is echoed in his resistance to reductive essentialising notions of selves: ‘We are complex people…we are not one dimensional…we are human fucking beings…we are not stereotypes.’[10] There is a similar resistance to essentialising notions in Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (2019) through the creation of multiple interweaving narratives exploring how one characteristic, here being a woman, comes into play in a complex array of ways with other aspects of the characters’ lifeworlds. In fact, intuitive grasping of these ideas has been around for a long time. For example, Shakespeare’s Sonnets uses music as a way of illustrating the fission-fusion nature of the self, as like ‘the concord of well-tuned sounds’ each string is ‘sweet husband to another’ and ‘strikes each by each in mutual ordering’.[11]

Enmeshed with factors that make us human are processes in the world beyond the human. Particular combinations of human minds and selves are composed by and resonate to varying degrees with processes ongoing in other entities, as our reformulatory capacity enables interconnections with and disconnections from aspects of others and the world. A dynamic multiplicity of factors come together to compose the mind or self at any one point in time, with experience an evolving array of intermingling threads across which consciousnesses play. That we are neither merely separated off from one another nor form a continuous amalgam avoids the extreme of our operating as an undifferentiated mass or in solipsistic isolation. Together these create the basis for ethical values and behaviour. Particular characteristics generate a ‘relative functional irreplaceability’, combining a distinctive grounding and responsibility in each self with an awareness of that self as being composed of multiple processes that extend beyond it across space and time.[12] Rousseau famously claimed that ‘One believes himself the others’ master, and yet is more a slave than they’; this is true because the capacity of our minds to be free does not merely operate in an individualistic way, since our minds are not discrete monolithic entities entirely separable from other people or environments.[13] Fission-fusion provides a basis for an epistemological realist approach, which is pluralist and recognises situatedness, yet is also committed to our access to reality despite the partial and situated nature of each perspective. Fission-fusion cognition illuminates the potentially positive nature of limits, separations and distinctions, as well as of openings, merging and continuities. Through such fissions we can have a reflective understanding of our holistic embodied natures and emergence from wider sociocultural and natural ecologies, rather than being simply immersed in them.

Find the first part of Dr Miranda Anderson’s post on the ‘fission-fusion’ concept here. Contact author information:, Miranda Anderson.


[1] Anderson, M, D. Cairns and M. Sprevak (eds) (2018), Distributed Cognition in Classical Antiquity; Anderson, M. and M. Wheeler (eds) (2019), Distributed Cognition in Medieval and Renaissance Culture; Anderson, M., G. Rousseau and M. Wheeler (eds) (2019), Distributed Cognition in Enlightenment and Romantic Culture; Anderson, M., P. Garratt and M. Sprevak (eds) (2020), Distributed Cognition in Victorian Culture and Modernism.

[2] Kurant, Agnieszka, ‘Uncomputables’, Cabinet 61, 58; see also Anderson (2022).

[3] This concern over what would be a defining ‘mark of the mental’ is of much longer standing, e.g, Rorty, Richard (1970) ‘Incorrigibility as a Mark of the Mental’, The Journal of Philosophy 67.12.

[4] Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1999) ‘Philosophical Investigations’, Concepts, 172.

[5] For example, see: Hohwy, Jakob (2013) The Predictive Mind; Clark, Andy (2016), Surfing Uncertainty.

[6] Casasanto, D. & Lupyan, G. (2015), ‘All Concepts are Ad Hoc Concepts’, The Conceptual Mind

[7] See: Casasanto, Daniel, ‘All Concepts are Ad Hoc Concepts’, Conceptual Engineering Network.

[8] See susan pui san lok (34-8), Kamini Vellodi (60-62), and John Onians (44-5) interviewed in ‘Decolonizing Art History’ (2020), Association for Art History.

[9] Steve McQueen, interview by Dan P. Lee, ‘Where It Hurts’, December 16, 2013, New York Magazine.

[10] Steve McQueen (2018), “Steve McQueen Career Retrospective,” interview by Jenelle Riley, SAG-AFTRA Foundation.

[11] Sonnet 8; I also explored these ideas in a joint paper on Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Shaun Gallagher in Helsinki in 2016.

[12] Frankl, Viktor [1946 lectures] (2019) Yes to Life, 54.

[13] Rousseau, Jean Jacques, [1762] (2019) The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. and trans. Victor Gourevitch, Book I: 1.